Age Spots Overview


Are age spots a necessary component of growing older, or can they be avoided? See more pictures of skin problems.
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It's happened to many of us -- one day you notice a mark on the back of your hand that wasn't there the day before. You're worried because you know the condition of your skin is important for both cosmetic and health reasons. You want to look good and feel well, and you understand that how your skin looks is vital to both of those goals.

So what is this mystery spot? If the mark is oval-shaped, flat on the skin, and a shade of brown, black, or gray, it might be an age spot [source: Mayo Clinic].

Age spots, or solar lentigines, are a common condition [source: Mayo Clinic]. They can appear in clusters or as a single mark [source: American Society for Dermatologic Surgery]. Age spots are sometimes called liver spots, which might lead you to believe that they are connected to the health of your liver. At one time, it was believed that age spots were a sign that one's liver wasn't performing as it should, but we know now that age spots don't have anything to do with liver function [source: Medline Plus]. The term "liver," however, is often still used to describe the color of some age spots, which are usually brown.

The spots can range from the size of a freckle to almost a half inch (more than 1 centimeter) across. Although they aren't dangerous, age spots can be unsightly, and they won't go away by themselves [source: Mayo Clinic].

The good news is that many age spots can be prevented. Or, if it's too late for prevention, they can be treated in a variety of ways. And though some treatments require professional medical care, other remedies can be purchased over the counter at your local drugstore or even whipped up at home in your kitchen.

Read on to find out what causes age spots, and what can be done to prevent or treat them.

What causes age spots?

Are age spots caused by aging? Aging itself is a factor, but variables such as ultraviolet radiation exposure and genetics also play a part [source: Mayo Clinic].

Although adults older than age 40 are more likely to have age spots than younger folks, it's usually sun exposure over many years, rather than aging itself, that's the primary cause [source: Medline Plus]. If you've spent a lot of time in the sun, your skin has probably sustained some damage from ultraviolet rays. Though a suntan might look healthy, it's not -- too much sun is harmful to the skin. The skin contains melanocytes, the cells that produce the pigment melanin, which helps protect the skin from the sun. Melanin gives skin its color, but extra melanin can result in age spots.

Sometimes as people get older, their bodies produce extra melanin as a result of the aging process. Generally, though, excess melanin is caused by frequent exposure to the sun's UV rays. That's why areas of your body that get the most sun, such as the face, hands and neck, are most often the location of age spots. Intense sun exposure and sunburn are known risk factors for developing age spots. Keep in mind that tanning beds are not a safer alternative, because they also generate harmful UV rays and a similar effect on your body as the sun does [source: Boyles].

Genetics also play a part. Some people are genetically inclined to develop age spots.

Also, if you've inherited fair skin, you are more prone to developing age spots than people with darker skin because your body is used to producing melanin to protect you [source: Mayo Clinic].

What steps can you take now to prevent age spots in the future? Read on to find out.

Preventing Age Spots

Of course, there's not much you can do about your genetic makeup, but that doesn't mean that you have to surrender to the inevitability of developing age spots. If you can minimize your exposure to the sun, you might also minimize your chances of getting age spots.

If possible, don't go outside in the sun during the hottest hours of the day. Avoid sun exposure between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun's rays are strongest and can do the most damage to the skin.

When you do have to be outdoors during those hours, always wear clothing that keeps your skin covered. Long pants, long-sleeved shirts and hats can all help shade you from the sun.

And don't think that you're not in danger just because you're not outside lounging by a pool most days. Many otherwise sun-smart people are overexposed to sunlight while they're driving or riding in the car. Most car window glass doesn't protect us from all of the sun's damaging UV rays. One solution is to install clear or tinted UV-protecting film on your car windows [source: Bernstein]. You might also consider carrying a lightweight, long-sleeved jacket in your car to wear for extra protection while driving.

Sometimes it's impossible to avoid being in the sun. At those times, your most powerful ally is sunscreen. Wear sunscreen every day you will be outdoors, even in the winter. Apply sunscreen with a high SPF rating half an hour before you go in the sun so that your skin can absorb the lotion. Don't forget to apply sunscreen to your hands, too. Sunscreen's benefits are greatest when it is reapplied throughout the day.

But what if you already have sun damage? Read on to discover what you can do to minimize -- or even eliminate -- age spots.

How to Get Rid of Age Spots

If you find yourself with age spots, whether they're from sun damage or an unlucky gene pool, there are several types of procedures that might help reduce their appearance. The options are available at a wide variety of costs.

Many people first turn to their neighborhood pharmacy. Bleaching cream is available there without a prescription. It's usually inexpensive, but it could take months to make an age spot fade. There's also the possibility that the cream could bleach the area around the spot more than the spot itself, drawing even greater attention to it. A doctor can prescribe stronger bleaching creams. While using any bleaching cream, make sure to always use sunscreen as your skin might be extra sensitive [source: Mayo Clinic].

Cryotherapy, or freezing, is another option. Liquid nitrogen or a similar agent is applied to the age spot in order to destroy the unwanted skin cells. When the skin heals, it appears lighter than before. Be warned that there is a small risk of permanent scarring or discoloration with this method [source: Mayo Clinic].

Resurfacing treatments include dermabrasion, which seeks to sand down the top layer of skin, which is eventually replaced by new skin. The treatment actually wounds the skin to generate new skin growth, so its recovery period can last for days or even more than a week [source: American Academy of Dermatology].

Chemical peels are another resurfacing method that can fade age spots. Acid is applied to the skin, burning off the epidermis, or outer layer. After the old skin is peeled away, new skin slowly forms. Chemical peels can target just the surface layer, requiring several treatments, or it can target deeper layers, which require fewer treatments but have a longer recovery period [source: American Academy of Dermatology].

Laser treatments are one of the most effective -- and most costly -- treatments. The lure of laser therapy is that it can get rid of the extra melanocytes without harming the outer layer of the skin. Repeated treatments are usually required to achieve the desired effect [source: Mayo Clinic].

Know that insurance companies rarely pay for these kinds of procedures because they are usually considered elective or cosmetic instead of medically necessary. Also, make sure that your treatment is being administered by a professional with proper training and experience.

Read on to learn about how food and flowers can be used to try to lighten age spots.

Home Remedies for Age Spots

Bleaching agents, acid peels and treatments using high-tech machinery can be a little intimidating, not to mention very expensive. They can also leave you with irritation, redness or worse. So where can you turn to try remedies that are less expensive and less abrasive?

The solution could be as close as your kitchen. Everyday products in your fridge and pantry might be less irritating than commercial products, and they are almost certain to be less expensive. Some people swear by their results. Below are some of the top home remedies.

Lemon juice has long been used in an effort to lighten a number of things, including hair and freckles. Try putting lemon slices or juice over your age spots every few hours. The juice might help bleach the skin to a lighter color [source: Hamptonian]. Similarly, you also could try laying slices of potato on your spots to see if it helps.

Other remedies that people have tried include applying vitamin E to the spots, rubbing on a mixture of onion and apple cider vinegar, or blending dandelions into a paste and applying it to the spots [source: Hamptonian]. Be aware that some of these ingredients might cause irritation or allergic reactions, so use them with caution.

As with many home remedies, these treatments aren't an exact science, so you probably shouldn't expect very noticeable or quick results. You also might need to repeat any remedies many times over, whether natural or not, before you see results. And you should discontinue the use of home remedies if you notice skin irritation.

For even more information, be sure to check out the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

Sources

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  • Boyles, Salynn. "WHO: Tanning Beds Cause Cancer." WebMD Health News. July 28, 2009. (Accessed 9/9/09)http://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/news/20090728/who-tanning-beds-cause-cancer
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  • Kohn-Haskins, Josefine. "Fade Sun Spots Naturally." Suite101. (Accessed 9/1/09)http://naturalmedicine.suite101.com/article.cfm/fade_sun_spots_naturally
  • Hamptonian, Julianna. "Natural Cures for Age Spots." Livestrong.com. (Accessed 9/3/09)http://www.livestrong.com/article/21720-natural-cures-age-spots/
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  • Medline Plus. "Liver Spots." Oct. 3, 2008. (Accessed 9/1/09)http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001141.htm
  • Morphemeremedies. "Home Remedies for Age Spot Removal." (Accessed 9/1/09).http://www.morphemeremedies.com/homeremedies_agespot.htm
  • Weber, Paul J. "Lentigos and Age Spots." SkinCancerInfo.com. (Accessed 9/3/09)http://www.skincancerinfo.com/sectionf/lentigos.html